clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Winds of change blow through today’s NFL

This isn’t your father’s NFL anymore, but a significantly changed sport in a rapidly shifting society.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Cleveland Browns Scott R. Galvin-USA TODAY Sports

“We would like to live as we once lived but time will not permit it.” (John F. Kennedy)

Week 3 of the 2017 NFL season was the week when politics intruded into the territory of sport. Like it or not, a substantial portion of all sports reporting for the remainder of this season will be devoted, not to what’s happening on the field, but to how NFL players behave or where they happen to be during the national anthem.

While some cite this development as further evidence that our nation is going to hell in a handbasket, it seems more likely that these ongoing protests are mainly a symbol of deeper issues in American society today. This also is a reflection of how pro football itself has changed over time, providing today’s NFL players with more money and leisure time to pursue various interests beyond their profession.

The knee-jerk reaction of many fans when they witness political activism by their favorite players often can be quite negative indeed. But while it’s easy to condemn a millionaire pro athlete for refusing to take his paycheck and keep his opinions to himself, the very fact these young athletes also are national celebrities virtually guarantees they’re going to make their voices heard.

It’s no secret that the United States of America recently went through a very heated and divisive national election. Subsequent developments and recent incendiary remarks by the President have done nothing to quell these bubbling tensions. In particular, the NFL protests stem from multiple instances of excessive force used by local police and directed principally against African-Americans. Regardless of where one might stand on this issue, there’s no denying that the broad publicity and accompanying videos of these horrific events have spurred a nationwide crisis that’s bound to be reflected in the attitudes of many NFL players.

HOF players sound off

While some fans are threatening to boycott NFL games because of what they perceive as unpatriotic actions, some older-generation, Hall of Fame players have expressed solidarity with the protests. On the Fox NFL Sunday pregame program, former Oakland Raiders great, Howie Long, put these circumstances into eloquent perspective. "Kneeling or sitting for the anthem is not something I would choose to do, but I fully support the right to do it,” said Long. “That being said, what keeps getting lost in the form of the protest is the message of inequality . . . . it's impossible for me truly to understand the challenges an African-American father faces at every turn while raising his children . . . . understanding starts with a dialogue, and the most important part of dialogue is to listen."

Bradshaw had kicked off the pregame show discussion by lambasting President Trump’s recent remarks. "This is America. If our country stands for anything, folks, it's freedom,” said Bradshaw. “People died for that freedom. I'm not sure if our President understands those rights—that every American has the right to speak out and also to protest.”

Indeed, the very notion that NFL players ought to be booted out of the league simply because they’re exercising their constitutional rights is absurd. It would threaten the NFL’s very existence, not to mention ignoring freedom of speech and the right to peacefully protest the actions of government.

The generational divide

As JFK’s quote implies, when September arrives, we’d all much prefer to be able to sweep politics under the rug while focusing purely on football and, in general, living as we’ve always done. But the tenor of these times simply will not permit that. In this age of high-technology and super-connectivity, everyone knows immediately what’s going on in the world around them, and the human reactions are often spontaneous.

If you asked today’s NFL players to name the thing about their jobs which they dislike the most, it’s likely many would cite the tendency of fans to regard them principally as sideshow performers, instead of appreciating their strengths and challenges as human beings. With withering assessments by sports pundits, bloggers and fans now flying around the globe each day at light speed, today’s pro athletes are more sensitive than ever to the critiques leveled against them. Obviously, it’s a tough situation for players because the same fans who love them when they win are just as quick to break out the torches and pitchforks when they lose.

Despite the support of NFL heroes like Bradshaw and Long, there are also some key distinctions between today’s generation of pro football players and the Baby Boomer athletes of the Bradshaw/Franco era. During the 1960s and ‘70s, pro football players were expected to endure the trials of their chosen profession without too many complaints. Players who did rock the boat in those days were subject to considerable team sanctions as well as ridicule from fans.

For example, let’s imagine that Le’Veon Bell had been a 1970s Steeler informing Dan Rooney and Chuck Noll that he wasn’t going to show up for training camp or the preseason. In that scenario, there’s absolutely no way that Bell would still be wearing black and gold today. But like every one of his fellow NFL coaches nowadays, Mike Tomlin cannot rule the roost anywhere close to the extent that “Emperor Chas” did 40 years ago. This doesn’t mean Tomlin isn’t a fine football coach, as his record attests. It’s mainly a reflection of how drastically the ground rules of the pro game have changed over the years.

For example, despite being the No. 1 overall pick in the 1970 draft and widely regarded as a can’t-miss pro quarterback, Terry Bradshaw was repeatedly benched by Noll early in his career. It’s difficult to imagine a similar scenario playing out in today’s NFL.

Additionally, prior to 1993, there was no such thing as unlimited free agency, so NFL owners exercised far more control in keeping their core players under contract. But today, players routinely jump between teams during the off-season and it’s difficult for any team to avoid losing at least a portion of its overall depth from year to year.

Fans have differing views on whether these changes are good or bad, and the purpose here isn’t to make value judgments. The point is that today’s NFL players have far more freedom across the board than players of yesteryear might ever have imagined. And a key aspect of that freedom is the ability to express themselves, not merely in post-game interviews, but also publicly from the perspectives of thinking, caring and connected individuals.

Diminishing returns

As for the sport itself, parity is the order of the day in the NFL. But this hasn’t necessarily produced the anticipated results with respect to the overall caliber of play on the field. This never has been more apparent than in Super Bowl 51, where we saw each of the NFL’s two top teams playing awful football for substantial portions of the game. What’s more, both of the conference championship games leading up to the Super Bowl last January were lopsided mismatches, with the Atlanta Falcons whipping the Green Bay Packers by 23 points (after leading 24-0 at halftime) and the Steelers having their heads handed to them in Foxborough by a 19-point margin.

In the wake of up-and-down performances by NFL teams during the first three weeks of this season—as well as surprising performances by teams recently viewed as NFL doormats—it seems apparent that mind-boggling inconsistency (of the type we witnessed in Chicago on Sunday) has also become rampant in pro football today.

Training camp and preseason games have essentially become a joke for a majority of NFL teams these days. As a result, fans in many cities find it difficult to get a fix on the true state of their home teams until about halfway through the season. For the Steelers, this certainly was true in 2016 and, in 2017, a repeat performance appears to be developing despite their current 2-1 record. While parity increases the level of fan interest because it works against dominance by perennial powerhouse teams, its negative impact is seen when teams having mediocre season records of .500 or less still find they’ve got reasonable playoff shots when December rolls around. The growing gaggle of teams bunched within the .500 neighborhood these days also means that the few teams compiling strong records are able to clinch home-field advantage throughout the playoffs earlier in the season, and subsequently coast into the postseason.

Long-term issues

Last but not least, we’ve got the overriding mega-issue of personal safety weighing heavily on the minds of today’s NFL players. This includes the continuing revelations about the devastating impact of CTE brain disease which has a real potential to destroy the sport of football as we know it today. Even if the NFL somehow manages to survive in the face of this threat, the types of rule changes necessary to significantly reduce player risks in football would fundamentally alter the game, largely eliminating the rough-and-tumble that represents a key aspect of its appeal.

A less-publicized issue involves heat exposure. During the Packers-Bengals game at Lambeau Field, it was reported that the 90-degree temperatures at game time were the hottest weather ever for a Packers’ regular-season home game. Scientists and meteorologists have confirmed that average seasonal temperatures are on the rise in cities throughout the nation, so it might not be too long before outdoor football on natural turf becomes a story to tell your grandchildren. Unfortunately, heat stroke is an equal-opportunity killer of humans regardless of age.

These looming problems on the gridiron and in NFL front offices mirror the social and political unrest which has become endemic to the world in which pro football operates today. It’s enough to make any football aficionado long for the “good old days” when we were blissfully ignorant of these threats—or else we simply had the luxury of ignoring them. But it’s obvious now that those days are long gone and there’s no use pretending anymore.

So maybe the best advice under these circumstances is simply to enjoy the game while we still can, realizing that it’s going to continue changing substantially in myriad ways whether we like it or not. As Bradshaw and Long have suggested, it’s not going to help if we attempt to find scapegoats for the gradual—but probably inevitable—demise of our favorite Sunday pastime. Perhaps we need to realize that, just as the Steelers win or lose as a team, so do we all.